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How 'Bout That Budget

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And they're off! The 2007 Idaho Legislature began last Monday with a meat-and-potatoes speech by Gov. Butch Otter, where he said he was ready to salt the state with one-time bits of spending, but not a lot of long-term vision. In a busy, 35-minute address, Otter alternately gratified and disappointed his colleagues and observers.

What they liked: Republicans and fiscal conservatives liked Otter's pay-as-you-go proposals to spend one-time budget surpluses on one-time things like scholarship endowments ($38 million) and incentives for new community colleges ($5 million for the first, best proposal). He's also ready to drop $37 million on new nursing school buildings in Lewis-Clark State College and the College of Southern Idaho.

"For the budget that we have, it's a reasonable approach," said Sen. Dean Cameron, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Cameron also liked Otter's approach to the sales tax on groceries: Otter was scared off by a $180 million price tag the state would face if it just removed the tax altogether; instead he wants to increase the grocery tax credit, a little-used tool already in place for low-income families.

But while Democrats liked Otter's fiscal responsibility, they were disappointed by his exclusion of any references to renewable energy or early childhood education, said House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet. She also noted that even though Otter is pitching a 5 percent raise for state employees, a rewrite of state insurance policies could soak them in the checkbook.

"You may end up paying more than you receive," Jaquet said. She also said that Otter's tweak of the grocery tax credit does nothing for the middle class.

And get ready for grumbling on the Statehouse expansion. Otter found a clever way to say "Nix" to the proposal to build underground wings to expand the Capitol: just don't fund it in your budget. Budget writers may be ready to draw a battle line on that.

Wild cards: It sounded like a joke, but Otter referenced Senator Bob Geddes' 2006 idea to have state prisoners swap beds, like they do in submarines. The idea was laughed off last year, and Geddes, the Senate's president, reminded people it was a proposal only.

Otter's spokesman Mark Warbis said the new gov wasn't just looking for a laugh line.

"He's serious," Warbis said. "He's open to any ideas the Legislature may have."